I concluded last week’s post by saying that the best way to become a better writer is to learn how to read like a writer. So let’s take a look at that statement and determine how to really do that.
I don’t know about you, but once I started writing regularly I started reading much differently. Whereas I used to simply read for the story or to gather facts, I began reading with the intent of discovering why the writer did what he did, and probably more importantly, how he did it.
While I’m certain everyone has his or her own method of reading to learn more about the craft of writing, here are a few things that have helped me along the way:
1. One of the first things I look for when reading nonfiction is to determine what approach or angle the author used. In other words, what one aspect of the topic was used as the focal point? In training myself to look for this, I’ve learned to become more cognizant of the many creative angles I can use to make a subject more interesting. Some writers have a way of highlighting the obscure or overlooked angles, which can totally bring a topic to life.
2. One of the keys to great nonfiction writing is the masterful use of fiction techniques, such as quotations, setting, description, and story. When reading, I’ll think about which techniques the writer used to bring her nonfiction article or book to life. Instead of simply noticing the various techniques used, though, I try to take it one step further and determine how they were used in balance with one another as well as how the writer wove the facts and information into them. A good writer will do so in such a way that the nonfiction information reads like a story. When I read, I always try to look for new ways of presenting factual material in interesting ways.
2. For works of fiction I love to focus on points of conflict. As we know, without conflict there is no story. Some writers are masterful at creating conflict and drawing the reading in–and keeping her there. How do they do this? As I read, I try to discover the writer’s tricks. With good writing, conflict is not just spelled out. Pieces of information are slowly given up at just the right moment. I like to find out: How does the writer allow this information to be trickled out, and when? Is it during conversations…or narrative? Does the writer leave the reader to connect the dots for himself? If so, what’s his technique for doing that?
Internal conflict, which is even tougher to successfully create, presents new questions for the writer-reader to ask: Does the writer show internal conflict through inner dialogue? Does he use personality traits or quirks to emphasize this conflict? What actions does he use that are effective at showing conflict–and why are they effective?
3. Also for fiction, I always pay attention to how the writer develops his characters. Often, I’ll get half way through a book then go back and read in the beginning when a character was first introduced to pay close attention to how the writer unfolded the bits and pieces about the character. What did the writer not allow the reader to know in the beginning, and why? How might it have changed the story for us if we knew too much about the character all at once? But at the same time, what were the important pieces that we had to know up front?
Also, I look for how a character’s traits are presented. In some cases, it’s more effective to use narrative to describe a character. In other cases, it needs to be done through behavior and actions. I like to take notice of how writers do this and why it works. Character development can make or break a story. As writers, we can learn so much from other writers on how to effectively introduce and unfold a character to the reader.
5. For both fiction and nonfiction, there is the issue of point of view. To me, an effective use of POV is a great way to have a lot of fun with your story (nonfiction as well). One thing I do when reading is to think about the story from a different POV than what the writer used. In fiction, I’ll pick a scene and try to imagine it from the viewpoint of another character. I think this is great training in learning to write creatively. I’ve never done this, but I think it would be very helpful to even re-write a scene from a different POV.
Even with nonfiction, instead of the information being written from the writer’s POV, if the story is about a person, what if it was written from the subject’s POV? I once read a fun nonfiction piece about an animal written from the animal’s POV!
No matter what you read, so much can be learned if you constantly ask yourself why you think the writer did something the way he did it, and how might it have been different if he chose another way. Look closely at word choice–the strong verbs the writer uses to describe (instead of adjectives), how he makes a character jump off the page, how he creates conflict and suspense, and what fiction techniques he uses to make his nonfiction interesting.
It seems like a lot to look for, but once you start training your eye to see these things, it will soon become a natural part of your reading, and you’ll find yourself asking a lot of “how” and “why” questions of the writer along the way. Then, hopefully, you’ll be able to incorporate those answers into your own writing.